New York wilderness program: ‘Not just a recreational camping trip’

Saranac Lake, N.Y. — Tarah Schlueter grew up in Colorado and came to appreciate the wilderness and open spaces.

When she moved to New York state, she found herself less than an hour from New York City and in an entirely different environment – one she never grew fond of.

When Schlueter had a chance to move to the Adirondacks and pursue a career in the outdoor industry, she jumped at the opportunity.

Schlueter’s boyfriend, a state forest ranger, was transferred to the Adirondacks and Schlueter enrolled in the wilderness recreation leadership program at North Country Community College.

It was exactly what Schlueter was looking for, but when it came time for the “wilderness” part of the program, a grueling fall expedition that took her about as far from the classroom as she could get, Schlueter almost thought she had bitten off too much.

“I’ve camped and spent time in the backcountry, but signing up for a 30-day practicum was a whole other story. This would be the longest I’ve ever spent continuous in the backcountry,” said Schlueter, 28. “I didn’t know what to expect, only that I knew it would be challenging physically and mentally. The first two weeks we paddled from Blue Mountain Lake and ended the paddling portion on Little Clear Pond. From there, we were dropped off at the trailhead for Hurricane Mountain and ended our backpacking section on Route 73 in the Dix wilderness.”

Schlueter survived the ordeal and said it was a great learning experience, providing insight she couldn’t have possibly gained in the classroom.

The wilderness recreation leadership program at North Country Community College was launched in 1979, and is one of the oldest outdoor education college degree programs in the country, according to program director Jimmy Cunningham.

There are currently 28 students enrolled in the program, and the focus is preparing them for a host of outdoor career opportunities, he said.

“Most students initially choose this degree program because they love the outdoors and want to explore the Adirondack Park,” Cunningham said. “The main objective of the program is to train students to be outdoor professionals in many capacities – wilderness guides, ski instructors, wilderness therapy, forest rangers, etc. Some graduates begin work right away locally, while others choose to transfer to 4-year degree programs at SUNY Plattsburgh or Paul Smiths College. We have transfer agreements with both colleges.”

North Country Community College is part of the State University of New York system and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018.

During the fall semester of their sophomore year, students enrolled in the wilderness recreation leadership program spend 40 days in the outdoor classroom learning hands-on skills.

In addition to the 30-day fall expedition, they also take part in a 10-day winter expedition, highlighting backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and non-technical mountaineering.

“This is the pinnacle of the program. Students are not only learning to travel and camp in the outdoors, they also teach lessons, hone their leadership skills, write journals and must take part in group processing and decision-making on a daily basis,” Cunningham said. “I always tell prospective students that the practicum semester will be an extremely challenging and rewarding experience. In other words, it’s not just a recreational camping trip.”

The hands-on, problem-solving curriculum was exactly the sort of experience Schlueter was looking for.

In addition to honing her outdoor skills, she learned how to handle different group dynamics, how to communicate effectively, and how to overcome obstacles.

“Spending 30 days in the backcountry is not for everyone. There were days that I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Schlueter said. “It was those moments of climbing Giant Mountain with a 60-pound pack on, I felt like my body might fall apart. I kept telling myself just a little further and before I knew it I was standing on Giant Mountain, experiencing this magnificent view and this sense of accomplishment. I would absolutely recommend this program to students who are passionate about the outdoors and want that hands-on experience.”

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